You are finally convinced wireless is sufficiently mature for you to migrate some or even all of that precious communications infrastructure. One possible option is to stop paying the big carriers for your leased lines or a T1 and switch to a wireless alternative, specifically WiMAX or the IEEE 802.16 standards around broadband wireless access.

WiMAX is gathering more interest than might be expected in fulfilling such a role, even for SMEs, who can see a prime example of the old low hanging fruit cliché.

It could be a quick way to stop paying BT anything like the money you have been to date. Plus it makes the CIO look like a hero while freeing-up budget elsewhere.

Caroline Gabriel, research director and wireless observer at Rethink Research, certainly thinks so. “Companies use leased lines to connect to the nearest convenient internet point of presence,” she says. “Unless you are literally next door to one, you always need some linking technology.”

A new option

“But why not look at a wireless link instead of a fixed line one? This could be either leased in turn or even invested in as part of a new wireless infrastructure. The point is, this shifts the spend from the operating to the capital expenditure budget and becomes a lot cheaper to run after the initial investment,” says Gabriel.

To test out the hypothesis that WiMAX is a legitimate option for the CIO interested in cutting costs, we spoke to three organisations that have, with varying degrees of seriousness, carried out such a move. Although no one has completely canned existing ‘under the pavement’ comms contracts, they all agree that this is a move worth considering.

Cost savings was one of the motivations behind automotive logistics supplier Unipart’s decision to look at wireless, says its IT director Myron Hrycyk, but not the only one.

“From our business perspective it is important to have a flexible and mobile workforce. We felt we needed to establish a new strategy in response to that and create a more flexible infrastructure.” The company started offering 3G-ready laptops but has it implemented WiMAX in a Midlands branch distribution centre. “Doing that meant a far more rapid deployment of the system and the overall cost was a lot lower too. We are also no longer paying leased line charges, which is welcome,” he says.

This does not that mean he plans to shut down all his leased lines company-wide. “This pilot did show us the technology can work, but our fixed line suppliers continue to provide an excellent service. I think the best way forward is for us to look at wireless when we want to get new sites up and running at lower cost rather than rip and replace everything. But I would say to other CIOs that this technology is maturing, it is worth evaluating its potential and having as another ‘club in the bag’.”

That was also the view of Kevin Bernard, head of IT at Hotelscene, a Bristol-based SME specialising in corporate booking of hotel accommodation for companies like Network Rail and EDS. The company manages its IP-based online booking system and call centre from Bristol and needed a solution to provide a failsafe backup should the existing leased line fail.

Calling backup

“We had a 2Mb leased line circuit from our supplier, which we were very happy with, but we wanted a back up for disaster recovery. “Also, I did not want to have to pay BT for the last mile into the building, which they still seem to own,” says Bernard. Using a wireless alternative to provide that extra internet connection and backup has given him 2.5Mb capacity at half the price, he says.

“We have basically doubled our bandwidth which is very handy as we are expanding at the moment. Plus it has given us disaster recovery peace of mind as well as two separate routes to the internet.”
The company says it is looking to roll out more VoIP telephony using other services from its wireless supplier, Libera.

Bernard does add some caveats. “If you’re looking to do this yourself be advised that having good network-savvy people on your side is a really good idea.” A glimpse into the future may be provided by the experience of Garry Astley, assistant director for Business Services at Swansea University. As part of an upgrade to a new campus comms infrastructure, Astley deployed wireless, partly to achieve cost savings but also to limit damage to some of the institution’s listed buildings.

“Some of these buildings have three-foot thick walls,” he says.
“That combined with all the disruption from digging up the campus to lay down cabling meant that wireless was just a much more attractive option all round.”

"If you’re looking to do this yourself be advised that having good network-savvy people on your side is a really good idea"

Kevin Bernard, head of IT, Hotelscene

Halls of residence on campus, plus a total of 70 other sites – with 65 buildings located two kilometres off-campus – are now linked by a broadband wireless network provided by NTL Business, forming one of the largest implementations of its kind in the UK.

Students can log on to the university servers from anywhere within reach of the wi-fi network on campus. They have any-time high-speed access to online resources such as the SuperJanet common communication and information-sharing channel plus internet access at a discounted rate of £8 a month all-in.

Astley was not only minimising disruption, but also future proofing for his demanding users. “Students now expect en suite bathrooms in their accommodation as well as high-speed and convenient broadband-level internet access, whenever they want it. This is as important now as courses and locations when trying to attract them,” he says.

Is this also a warning sign to business that graduates entering the workforce in 2007 and beyond will expect wireless at work? Yes, according to Unipart’s Hrycyk. “There is a significant change in the user base, which I think is going mobile a lot more rapidly than was expected,” he believes. “The future: work is what we do, not where we go.”

“I would recommend people look seriously at this in 2006,” concludes Gabriel. “Your leased line exposure is only likely to go up as your use of the internet increases. This could be an option to save that headache and at the very least, could be a way to put some friendly pressure on your existing supplier to offer extra discounting.”

That has to be a good motivation to investigate going wireless a bit earlier than you might have planned.

WiMAX in brief

WiMAX can offer a range of technologies ranging from digital microwave to broadband wireless access and to some options that are only really of interest to telecommunications companies.

Options depend on bandwidth required and physical distance from the nearest fibre ‘pipe’.

A new standard for security, Federal Class, is hailed as ending residual (though legitimate) doubts about wireless security, especially in built up areas. So far WiMAX has been sold mainly to the smaller enterprise, with companies like Towerstream, NextWeb and Airband in the US. Libera, UK Broadband and Pipex are trying to grow the UK market. Larger firms are also evaluating commercial launches.

AT&T has claimed that 50 per cent of enterprise customer access circuits are less than three miles from the nearest internet point of presence. With “98 per cent” 10Mbps or usually less, WiMAX would in fact offer better price performance than T1 leased lines.